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So, my friend Mike complained the other night that I never update this blog anymore. This is true; as happens to so many of us, work has overtaken my life. However, I am making some significant changes to my work schedule which should–perhaps–allow me to get back into doing some roleplaying from time to time.

I’ve had a couple of excellent RPG moments that I haven’t blogged about. I got to play in Stephen Chast’s excellent Halloween Marvel RPG adventure as Invisible Woman, which was a real treat. I had read the system several times, but hadn’t gotten to do more than roll a few dice in example encounters before our online game. One of my friends (NOT Mike) had told me that the system was a bit rules-heavy, and while I did find that we often spent time puzzling out our dice pool, I found the mechanics of figuring out how to justify the effects of your superpower surprisingly fun. I’m still a little bummed that I wasn’t allowed to use IW’s talent (which I had read was created by bending rays of light) to change the wavelength of cell phone light into an imitation of sunlight to combat some vampires, but I guess this is where my limitations as an English major instead of as a science major come in. Chast was an excellent and patient GM, and balanced out the rules of the system with a fun narrative that was just right (in flavor and in length!) for Halloween evening.

Tonight we are having a quick wrap-up of our infamous Vampire campaign. When we last left it, my character (had been? was? is?) Prince, and she had left things in a bit of a mess. A handful of major NPCs were incapacitated after a botched mission to eradicate the Sabbat in our little town–including our Storyteller’s favorite NPC. I expect to pay for that tonight. My character had also kindasorta run off just after The Botching to find the previous Prince, who had always been good to her and to whom she felt indebted) even though he was kindasorta blood bound to her because it was the only way to keep him alive after they’d found that he was…) actually, never mind. That’s a long story. Suffice it to say that things were a mess, and it was all my fault, so this session should go totally well. Also, my lucky dice are somewhere in a sea of packed boxes, so that bodes well, too. I’m basically expecting my poor character to die.

At any rate, now that I’ll have more free time, I’m hoping to get back into playing–and maybe even running–some RPGs. My husband has talked about running Star Wars, and I’m curious about Torchbearer. And of course, I still have that Dread game ready to go that I never ran last year. Oh! And Call of Catthulhu‘s coming from Kickstarter soon, too, with my wonderful hand-knitted catthulhu scarf. Oh! And Becoming. That’s coming, too. Did I mention that I have an RPG buying problem? Perhaps I should rename this blog Llany’s RPG Buying-and-not-Playing Problem.

So, there it is. Mike, I hope this keeps me on your favorite blog list.

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So, this piece started off as a short narrative about a couple of GMs who run really great games, but it might have spiraled a teensy bit out of control and ended up as a long meditation on different modes of consuming RPGs.

The Games I Love to Play

While at PAX, we had the pleasure of playing in a game of Fortune’s Fool with Pantheon Press‘s Rob Trimarco and Jason Keeley. They had planned on running the introductory adventure that we had run several years ago the first time we met them, but when they realized we wanted to play, Rob suggested with glee that Jason “just make something up on the fly.” I had a little heart attack; as you all know, I’m a planner, so I would hate having to ad-lib in the middle of the chaos of a convention, but Jason seemed into the idea, and off we went.

I won’t spoiler the original fantastic demo adventure for FF, but just know that it involves saving Pinocchio from a very bad event on his seventh birthday. This follow up adventure returned the characters to his home on the evening of his eighth birthday, but Gepetto had gone missing, apparently kidnapped by a large man smelling of wood chips and death. I won’t spoiler this adventure, either, except to say that it involved a magic Ferris wheel, people being turned into donkeys, and a ghastly workshop.

What most struck me about our game session, though, was how much it differed from our weekly Vampire session, and how much both of those tended to differ from other games I’ve played.

Our Vampire ST knows the goals of every NPC during the span of the upcoming game, and if we cross paths with an NPC, he knows the backstory of each one inside and out so that it’s easy for him to explain what that character would do to us if push comes to shooting, as it so often does. He plans his NPCs carefully, and the rest of the story evolves logically from their needs and wants. In fact, if you catch him in a good mood and ask about one of the NPCs’ backgrounds, you can easily get a short story about what happened from the time that NPC was a child until now. His NPC backgrounds are always fresh and interesting, including lots of unexpected twists and turns. Things in our ST’s world always make sense, and if they appear not to make sense at a given point, it’s just because we don’t yet know the whole story. Our job usually involves uncovering it. We progress with caution because the world is dangerous and the plots are meant to hurt us, but it’s absolutely thrilling when we make a discovery about how pieces of the plot fit together. During play, our ST remains very calm, because we really can’t derail him; he simply works out the NPCs’ logical response to whatever madness we’ve decided to do. Of course, I also think he remains calm because it drives us insane when we know we face (im)mortal danger and he sits there placidly staring at the ceiling.

Keeley, on the other hand, personifies energy. He races from idea to idea with a lot of shouting and gesturing. Not everything in his games has a logical reason for existing; in fact, many things seem purposefully illogical, but it doesn’t matter because everything in his worlds floats in an atmosphere of childlike wonder that makes details symbolically and atmospherically sensible even if they don’t fit together logically. His games have a breathless, vertiginous feel to them that suits the whims of the Fortune’s Fool universe; the tide sweeps players from one event to the next out of the sheer delight of seeing what kind of wackiness will happen around the next corner. I haven’t talked to him at length about the depth of his NPC backgrounds, but they don’t seem to work in quite the same way as the NPCs in our Vampire game; NPCs stand in for familiar fairy tale types, so players ‘know’ them immediately upon meeting them, and the puzzle comes from uncovering the ways in which they deviate from expectations. (I said quite a bit about this in my review of the FF campaign, too. It’s a delightful use of the familiar.) I certainly don’t mean by any of this that his adventures are saccharine; on the contrary, they’re often just as creepy as our Vampire adventures partly because the game so skillfully juxtaposes the cute with the grotesque.

Despite their extreme differences in style, these two GMs run some of the best gaming I’ve every played, partly because both show a willingness to let their players engage fully with their worlds. Whatever we ask, we can try, and the mechanics assist rather than hinder us. Theoretically, most RPGs work this way, but in my experience, some games and some GMs just wind up making the players think more about mechanics than story. A great gamer can tell a nuanced story with almost any system, but I do believe that system matters; if you have a sheet full of powers and a bunch of monsters that only respond to certain powers, you’ll spend your brainpower working out the relationship between those things instead of asking questions about how the monsters got into the Royal Society meeting house in the first place.

When I play games with the GMs I most enjoy, I feel as though I’m going head-to-head with another first-class mind in a strategic game of investigation and question. Can I figure out what’s at stake? Will I have the resources to outwit the limitations on my character sheet and find a workaround that can happen regardless? In games I like less, I feel as though I’m pitting my wits against the game itself: can I figure out how to use these skills most effectively to anticipate and react to what someone has set up? I think of a Pathfinder con game in which we were supposed to know from lore to use a particular kind of spell on a particular kind of creature; the ‘challenge’ of the encounter was in having purchased enough product to anticipate the correct answer and to match a specific skill to a specific encounter.

The Games I Love to Run

It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m not really sure I would have liked playing in my own Warhammer campaign all that much. In spite of its significant problems, I still love the unwieldy WFRP3e and loved running it. The crazily rich Warhammer universe (and all of its passionate fandom) provided plenty of interesting, quirky, engaging background to use when planning my games, and the design of the rules made it easy to create and run many different types of encounters effectively. Note, though, that I say “run encounters” rather than “tell a story”; even as much as I wanted my players to immerse themselves in the Warhammer universe and love it as I did, I ended up thinking of our games primarily as a series of individual puzzles that the players could solve using different skill sets.

booksI think my GMing suffered from our emphasis on gamist play. I inadvertently encouraged that play in a few different ways, I think: miniatures and terrain tended to make my players focus on the tactics of winning rather than on narrative, and my choice of a rules-heavy system like WFRP3e probably didn’t help, either, as my players and I constantly had to shuffle the bits that reminded them to think about mechanics during our sessions. In some ways, focusing on rules so much made running the game easier, as I could always refer back to the game designer’s decisions. By the end of our campaign, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the types of interactions my players had with the setting. I wonder if I could run WFRP3e differently now, or whether the limitations I experienced were intrinsic to the system itself or to my own way of thinking about gaming.

Mouse Guard, as much as I love it, can suffer from some of the same problems. You can’t design a MG game around encounters, but the system encourages you to create sessions rather mechanically, focusing on things like the time of year and the assigned task, leading you to think more about what the players will do than about a fictional world spinning on its own axis. The system attempts to ‘assist’ RP via mechanics, which meant at our table that RP occasionally happened because of mechanics rather than because of narrative logic.

I suspect my love of running mechanical games comes from the fact that I’m a bit of a control freak. If your rules strongly suggest particular solutions, you can cut down on the possible outcomes you must anticipate. While I love not knowing what to expect as a player, I didn’t always love it as a GM. Now, my players didn’t seem to mind my style too much; in fact, they were more eager to railroad themselves than I was to railroad them, often asking after the session, “So, what were we supposed to do? Did we miss anything?” They enjoyed guessing the anticipated answer. As a player, though, I find the feeling that I’m playing through an interactive book irritating. I want a hand in dictating the storyline, not just a chance to react to it.

The Games I Love to Read

When browsing a store bookshelf, I tend to find myself drawn to quirky, rules-heavy systems, partly because I like the notion that an unusual ruleset can push players past their usual narrative strategies. The less I understand the logic behind the rules of a given RPG on the first read-through, the more likely I am to love it. Trying to work out why the rules to a game like Freemarket or A Thousand and One Nights seem so unintuitive to me at first glance forces me to rethink my own preconceived notions about narrative. Reading these games has made me a better GM, and I know they make me a better writer of fiction.

What Does All This Mean? (Or the tl;dr Section)

First, that I’m crazy.

Second, that my bookshelf is filled with RPGs that we will never play.

Third, not all of the groups I love to play with are likely to love my GMing style.

I wonder, though, how many of us realize that we have slightly different preferences when playing, running, and reading games. Although we like to think of these as equivalent areas of competency, they aren’t quite the same, nor do all of us scratch the same creative itch by GMing, playing in, or reading RPGs. I never feel that I’ve wasted money if I’ve bought a system that I’ll never play if that system makes me think differently about gaming; I never feel as though a particular GMing style simply ‘doesn’t work,’ although it might not mesh well with a specific system or group of players. Yet acknowledging that we can have different modes of consuming RPGs can make us better at choosing the products and groups that will fit us best, and that makes everyone at the table happier.

My vampire’s hapless, disheveled, Bugles-eating professorial ghoul may die on Thursday at our game, and if not on this Thursday, some other future Thursday. Given that he’s involved in a turf war between clans in an increasingly unstable Domain, it’s really pretty likely.

Intellectually, I’m prepared for it, because it makes sense in narrative terms. Still, that doesn’t mean that I–as a player, not just as a character–am not going to be really upset when it happens. (My only consolation is that I suspect our ST is going to be upset, too, because he’s also rather fond of that particular NPC.)

Now, my ghoul isn’t a super valuable +12 sword of macguffin-slaying that ends up turning the tide of the game. In fact, the Doc has generally been more trouble for my character than he’s worth, as he has a tendency to be imbibe at all the wrong times and take books from the Tremere at all the other wrong times, leaving my character to answer drunken text messages and discuss lending library hours with a hostile clan when she ought to be running from something dangerous and toothy. Yet I like the NPC enough that I have put serious thought into retiring my PC just to move him out of the Domain to safety.

I’m just going to stop for a minute to let that sink in: I’m tempted to retire a PC I love to save a relatively minor NPC.

Part of me is really horrified to admit that. I’m fairly certain this puts me squarely into the “unquestionably insane” category. On the other hand, I think it indicates how much I’m enjoying this particular game.

Between the upcoming peril and an interesting conversation elsewhere on the internet, I got to thinking about the relationship between good RP and the extent to which any given group of players allows itself to be vulnerable around a table. By definition, all roleplaying requires a base amount of vulnerability, as you’re telling a group story. Yet some groups reveal things about themselves more comfortably than others, and some GMs/DMs/STs encourage that sharing better than others.

I have to say that my own tendencies in this area aren’t always great. When under pressure–in both RL and in game–I have a tendency to turn into a manic Oscar Wilde. This is why people like to sit next to me during meetings. If given free rein, I’ll do much the same in game. Even when I’m at my comedic best, though, those moments only go so far in furthering the storyline itself, and they invite other players to riff off of the comedy, not explore the atmosphere or the framework of the moment.

In many ways, my (and many of my friends’) impulse to be funny is a reaction against revealing too much at the gaming table. I’ve noticed that we often do it when things get rough, either when we aren’t sure how to tackle a particular difficult task or when we are being asked to respond to a story element that may get emotionally tricky. It’s an avoidance tactic, and many gamers feel they have the right to it, since we game to have fun. Yet I’d argue that many of us game to stretch ourselves intellectually and emotionally, too, and that’s where the comedy routine weakens the aims of gaming.

Let me back up for a minute. I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago next to our Vampire ST; as usual, I was being funny via text message with a handful of friends around the table. Then I was struck by the realization that I would never want to be sitting across the table on the other side of a negotiation from my ST, especially one in which we disagreed. It’s unlikely to happen, since we’re in different departments, but I suddenly realized that he knew more about my negotiation strategies, soft spots, stalling tactics, and overwhelming desire to collaborate (even when it’s an incredibly poor choice) than people who have known me for years. Ditto for the other players. It struck me suddenly that I played this particular game more honestly than I had played a game in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of outstanding gaming over the last few years. Yet still, I’m fairly certain our Vampire game is the most satisfying RPG I’ve played in a long time, partly because we have built a table around which we aren’t afraid to take some risks. Quite a bit of that comes from having a group whose gaming goals match so completely.

Let me give some examples of varying goals. My WFRP players were deeply invested in the bizarre storylines of that game; they weren’t minmaxers in the traditional sense, and they weren’t always all that interested in the mechanics of the game. They wanted to find out what was going on behind the scenes, and did a lot of snooping around to figure out why things were as they appeared. A handful of recurring NPCs elicited some strong feelings (the annoying orphan Waltrout was one and an actor-turned-kidnapper named Klaus was another,) and they loved lightheartedly bantering with one another, constantly egging the dilettante on to ask about getting her clothing cleaned in the Inns they visited or suggesting to the Priest of Sigmar that he indulge his desire to start fires. Overall, narrative motivated them, both the prewritten narrative of the adventures themselves and the evolving narratives they were creating on their own. The group had a lot of warm, positive interactions in character, but for the most part, they were light and without much long-term consequence. I will take quite a bit of responsibility for this as the GM, since the Warhammer world tends to fascinate me; I undoubtedly encouraged my players to look at the world and its narratives more carefully than, say, the NPCs or the combats.

The Pathfinder group I played in years ago and still play with intermittently during summers solved puzzles. Where could we best orient ourselves to kill the monster in this particular room? How might we negotiate the best deal for this doodad we need to finish the adventure or steal it if nobody had a decent negotiation skill? Was there a skill or item that negated the problematic spell just cast by the NPC, and if many of us had it, who should best spend the charges to use it? Again, we had a lot of fun tabletop banter, but a good two-thirds of it was out of character; we talked about the game much as you’d talk about a board game and dipped into character when we had to do a negotiation or somesuch.

Our current game has slightly different stakes: can we outwit and out-negotiate these NPCs, most of whom elicit pretty strong feelings? Can we keep doing it week after week, despite the drastically changing fortunes of our Domain? Can we find out what those NPCs don’t want to tell us openly? With which PCs and NPCs will each of us build relationships, and will those turn out to be short-term alliances or long-term friendships? Certainly we go “do stuff,” but the majority of things that we do in game have the reward of increasing our characters’ reputations and opening new doors to build relationships.

When pressed, most of us would say that most RPGs can encourage all of these types of play, and most games do have a smattering of each these elements from time to time. Generally speaking, though, any given player will likely have more strength in one area than in another. A given system will likely encourage one kind of behavior over another. Most of us play in groups with a split talent pool: you’ll have one player who wants to build relationships, a couple who want to solve puzzles, and one who wants to discover narrative. These players often get stuck negotiating the added complexity of the ST/GM/DM’s own vision of ideal play and the extent to which the chosen system allows that play. Once in awhile, though, you luck into a group where all the players have the same main goal and execute it equally well; once every Brigadoonish number of years, you’ll luck into a group with a unified play style that has chosen a system wisely and that has an ST who manages that play style well. At those moments, then, players can take risks at the table without worrying that their play detracts from another player’s game or from the ST’s vision of the game as a whole. For me as a player, that’s when the real magic happens, as everyone around the table seamlessly supports each other in the goal of good gameplay. That’s also when a player decisions feel truly meaningful because the scope of play has narrowed enough that events can have a genuine impact on a dynamic game world–like when it feels reasonable to retire a PC to save a hapless little ghoul.

Generally speaking, our V:tM Storyteller is Not Screwing Around. He’s pretty serious about keeping us wholly engaged, minimizing PC downtime, and delivering the evening’s story. This is, of course, in direct contrast to my WFRP3e GMing style, which consisted of large stretches of screwing around momentarily interrupted by occasional tidbits of focus. Of course, part of that has to do with the games themselves; the dark atmosphere of Vampire is way more likely to get ruined by rampant silliness, while WFRP has some silly built in. Plus, I was always having to rearrange the WFRP components, which, unfortunately, gave my PCs plenty of time to wander off track. Heh.

Since our ST generally does stay so focused and serious, though, it’s even more amusing when he says something hilarious. Here are a few awesome tidbits:

Sh*t Our Storyteller Says

(Before rolling a major damage roll against a PC named Marcus): “If it makes any difference, I really liked Marcus.”
“Oh! This is the best thing that could have happened! You are currently on fire.”
(Before describing a building we were about to enter): “I just want you guys to know that I did NOT do this. This is NOT my fault.”
(With genuine regret): “Am I gonna do something really mean right now? Yeah. I am.”

In other news, I got two little boxes of Chessex ten-siders for Christmas. Inexplicably, I didn’t have any purple d10s, which is obviously a situation that couldn’t continue. I honestly can’t think of the last time I had a set of all ten-siders; it must have

Same dice box I had in college, too. The ST used to rattle it when he wanted the group's attention.

Same dice box I had in college, too. The ST used to rattle it when he wanted the group’s attention.

been back in Chicago in the 90s, at that comic book store on the North Side. Moon-something, maybe? Can’t remember the name of it for the life of me. Turns out I had a handful of those Chessex V:tM dice in my box, too, which must have come from the same store. Either that, or they belonged to someone from our 90s campaign and wandered their way into my set. Hard to say. I have to admit that after playing so many FFG RPGs of late, it does feel a little weird to have standard dice–identical standard dice–in one’s dice bag.

Speaking of FFG RPGs, we are set to try out Star Wars today with a full party. We’ll see how it goes. I’m excited to see the pared-down mechanics from WFRP put to use with a full group. I have to admit that as much as I loved WFRP, combat did slow things down a lot, and playing Vampire has made me appreciate simplicity and speed of game mechanics. Ultimately, I’d much rather investigate than fight, though, but I’m not sure that FFG tends in those directions, even when the source material might make that more appropriate. Anyway, I’ll have a review up of that sometime in the near future.

Hope you’re all having a good weekend and are getting some gaming in!

I am currently more organized for our Vampire game than I am for any part of my actual paying job. I’m pretty sure this means I should start getting paid to play Vampire.

vampire notebook

So, yeah. I’ve been away because of a particularly busy work schedule. But I’m back! I’m sure there will be much rejoicing, &c.

ANYWAY. Our WFRP group bit the dust after one of our players became largely unavailable. I don’t have much patience for leisure activities that require byzantine scheduling; I do too much of that madness already at work. Some months went by in which there were no RPGs, and those months were unpleasant.

At the moment, I’m getting to play for a bit, which has been a pleasant change. Even more surprising is the fact that we’re playing one of the most stuff-less games in the universe, and I’m really digging it. Somehow, it’s 1994 again, and I’m back in college playing Vampire: The Masquerade. We’re even using first edition rules. Don’t really know how that happened, but there it is.

Of course, the Storyteller system has always caused a minor disturbance in the Force in our household. I have loved it for a long time. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s one of the easiest systems to run poorly and to play poorly. Having tried it myself, I know that it’s extraordinarily difficult to be a good ST, and even one mediocre player can substantially weaken the game. Still, some of the best campaigns I played in my 20s were Vampire and Changeling games, and I’ve always maintained that with a good group, the Storyteller system makes for better sessions than most other games. My husband, on the other hand, has maintained that the Storyteller system is broken at its core, with a weak rules system bolstered only by a decent mythos. For the most part, we just generally steered clear of discussing World of Darkness when we talked about RPGs.

Then, someone at work mentioned that he ran a game and that we’d be invited if we were interested. We did one of those “interview games,” where you play out one game just to see if you all like each other and then agree vaguely to talk about whether or not you want to keep going at some noncommittal point in the future. We met in the evening on a Saturday, planning to do some other stuff that evening after we tried it out and then to get back to the ST later if we decided we wanted to keep going. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t hopeful that my husband would want to keep playing, and I just hoped that it would kind of suck so I wouldn’t be caught with one of us wanting to play and the other not.

Chargen made me nervous; our ST was very laissez-faire. I’m a hoverer, so I was kind of freaked out when he didn’t worry too much about what was on our sheets. To be honest, I’m always kind of freaked out by character sheets, because I never know if the person running the game will count on us to know just the right skill to get us through a weirdly-constructed moment of the game specifically designed to play to our characters’ strengths, ie, an encounter designed around some bizarre skill I took on a whim that’s written in the margins on the back of my sheet and that I forget immediately. Still, he was so not worried about what I was taking that I thought, “Oh, yeah. We’ll probably remake these later if they don’t fit the game. Right.”

Except nope. We started to play, and I realized that the ST wasn’t very interested in what was on my character sheet because he was only secondarily interested in the mechanics of the game at all. I had that feeling of total magic I had back the first time I played a White Wolf game, which had been presented to me as “the English major’s D&D.” Our ST’s that perfect rules minimalist/’say yes’ kind of gamer, the sort that many people want to be but most can’t really manage well. We rolled dice only a few times in our first session, because most of the stuff we wanted to do, we just did. I have to admit that after managing all of that WFRP stuff, I felt kind of liberated. Nobody had to flip cards or worry about whether or not to add a puzzle piece to their stance tracker at the start of the game. We just negotiated the story. I had forgotten how much I love RPGs when the mechanics almost entirely disappear.

The other major revelation for me came after our second session. (Yes, there was a second session–my husband happily scheduled it that very evening.) We played for about seven hours, I think. I say ‘I think’ because there wasn’t a clock in the room and I didn’t look at my phone once.  Now, I can’t tell you the last time I went for more than an hour without looking at my phone. Even when we played WFRP, we usually had several breaks in which I had the chance just to sneak a quick peek at my email or text messages. Still, during that second session, I totally forgot I even had a phone, and when we broke up the game at 1am, I was shocked to see that so much time had gone by.

For me, those are all the hallmarks of a truly great game: a lack of bogging down in mechanics, an emphasis on combat only when absolutely necessary for the story’s advancement, and a storyline so compelling that you forget your own name temporarily.

Anyway, more later on how all that’s turning out–and, of course, what I bought for it. I’m also looking forward to an upcoming playthrough of the Star Wars Beginner’s Box, which is happening at some point. Soon. Theoretically. We spent tonight making some nice cardstock buildings for that, so I’ll post a bit about those, too, and about how I only got glue on 75% of the nearby furniture. In the meantime, though, I hope everyone’s well!

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